Understanding your espressos..
There’s no denying that coffee is everywhere. It’s difficult to find a street in London that doesn’t hold host to a bunch of different cafes. I’ve worked with coffee for a few years, beginning as a complete caffeine-phobe to now having an appreciation and genuine interest in the world of beans. My coffee background consisted of grabbing quick sugary lattes to get over hangovers and bad instant sachets to get through the 4am slump of dissertation writing. I thought it was too bitter for my taste buds and I wasn’t a ‘coffee-drinker’, but the truth is I was just a little daunted by the world of caffeine. Throwing confused looks when being asked if I’d like a flat white, cortardo or piccolo.
And time after time sipping my way through drinks I’d accidentally ordered in a panic-stricken state, intimidated by scary looking baristas. After spending time learning about roasters, farms and the variety of flavours between beans I’ve come to love and cherish a decent cup of coffee.
What I’m saying is… Don’t be intimidated by how complicated coffee can seem. I was always intrigued but too scared of saying the wrong thing when ordering. In this post I’m going to explore the world of espresso coffees and the variety you can find in your beans if you choose the right cafes and roasters.
What’s a filter and what’s an espresso?
A filter coffee is a drink that has been brewed by a method that filters through a paper or gauze of some kind, allowing it to slowly absorb the oils and essences and create a clean, light-bodied drink. Filter coffees are usually enjoyed black to heighten the flavours. There’s a wide variety of methods and so much to talk about with filter coffee, that I’m going to do a separate post exploring it further. So for now, just know that filter coffee is a very different drink to the more common espresso.
Espresso is the main way of brewing coffee commercially. Easily accessible and widely loved by the masses. It’s brewed by forcing a small amount of nearly boiling water through finely ground coffee beans. Due to the short time (around 25 seconds) and pressure used, espresso shots are very concentrated and intense in flavour.
It can be a little overwhelming when faced by a chalkboard scrawled with hundreds of coffee names. But relax, it’s cool. Trust me. They’re all a variation of one simple thing, a shot of espresso. Let’s break this down…
What’s the difference?
-Espresso. The heart of any ‘spro based drink. This can be either a single, or double shot of just espresso. Nothing added. This is the best way to taste the purest notes of your beans. Should really be enjoyed with a glass of water.
-Macchiato. An espresso shot with a small blob of hot, steamed milk on top.
-Cortardo. A longer version of a macchiato. An espresso with a few inches of hot, creamy milk.
-Piccolo. A longer version of a Cortardo, but with a single shot of coffee.
-A Flat White. The most highly recognized and respected drink from the third wave coffee movement, which we have the Auzzies and Kiwis to thank for (we’ll come onto this later.) Known to be the perfect combination in both texture and quantity of espresso and milk. A double espresso shot in a 6oz cup, topped up with creamy, lightly aerated milk resembling a velvety, smooth appearance. A flat white can only ever be in a 6oz cup, any larger and it becomes a variation of a latte or cappuccino.
-A latte. A small latte would be a single shot of espresso, while a large would be a double. What makes a latte a latte is that it is the milkiest of all the coffee drinks. The milk has the least amount of bubbles created when steamed, and therefore the end result is a very milky coffee.
-An Americano. Is an espresso topped up with hot water. If you have it as it comes, it’s a black coffee. If you add milk, it’s a white coffee. Simples. Americano gets it’s name from the Italian translation for American. It’s believed to have acquired this name in World War 2, when American GIs in Italy would dilute the traditionally bitter Italian espressos with hot water to resemble the coffee they were used to drinking back home.
-A Cappuccino. Traditionally served with chocolate sprinkles or cinnamon, a cappuccino has the thickest and most aerated milk. While throughout history, the cappuccino has slightly changed in appearance; it originally was a large circle of milk with a thin brown crème around the edge. This was due to resembling the bald heads of monks within their robes, hence the literal Italian translation of Cappuccino to ‘small capuchin’. This has changed due to the rise in coffee art, but the thick texture of the milk remains.
-A Mocha. A single or double shot of coffee with hot chocolate powder and milk. Basically, a hot chocolate with coffee in. Similar texturized milk to a cappuccino.
There are hundreds more espresso-based drinks… ranging from Affogatos (Espresso over ice cream) to Irish coffees (Espresso with Whisky) and Iced Coffees (Espressos over ice with milk). I’ll explore further into these in future posts. For now just know that the above drinks are all you need to know in any standard coffee shop.
Another thing to note, are the various expressions and words used within the coffee world;
-A Barista. Someone who makes and serves coffee.
-Taste notes. The same use as in wine, ‘notes’ just means the flavours found in beans. Different taste notes are what make beans individual from one another. You can usually find them on bags when you buy coffee and can be anything from ‘Bold, chocolaty, fruit and nutty notes’ to ‘ Peachy, passion-fruit acidity with a citrus sweetness’ and even ‘Morello cherry, lemon rind and baker’s chocolate’. I find taste notes fascinating, there’s so much to be said about them that I’m going to do a whole separate post in the future.
-Coffee farm. Where the beans are picked and harvested.
-Coffee Roasters. Roasters will source, buy, import, roast and deliver coffee. They strive to find the best coffees from around the world, and then experiment to make it taste the best it possibly can. Roasting is literally heating up the beans and ‘roasting’ them.
-A Coffee Blend. Combining two or more kinds of beans. This can give a more complex or balanced taste.
Which beans to choose?
In the last 10 years there’s been a huge resurgence in the coffee world, with individual artisan cafes sprouting up all over London and the rest of the world. Small roasters and businesses have been breaking away from the everyday of Starbucks and providing high-quality coffee made with time and passion. This has come from the ‘Third Wave’ coffee movement; A movement stemming from Australia, New Zealand and Canada and standing for an improvement in quality between the various stages of coffee production. Basically meaning better and more intimate communication between the people who farm the beans, roast the beans, buys the beans and right down to who serves drinks in the shop.
While the talk of farms, roasters, blends and origins can be a little baffling it is worth knowing that the coffee you’re drinking has been brought to you with thought and care. When you drink a coffee that has been mass-produced for speed and quantity, there really is a massive contrast from the flavours of a small roaster who has put in time and effort to bring out the most in taste of the beans.
Obviously when it’s 7.30am and you need waking up from an ancient slumber, the origin of beans is the last thing on your mind… but if you can just divert your commute route to somewhere that sells decent coffees your day will be off to a far better start. No need for syrups or whipped cream, just the lovely smell and taste of a beautifully crafted drink.
Why choose ‘Artisan’?
I don’t want to sound preachy, as that’s one of the things that put me off getting into coffee in the first place. There’s just one simple fact, if you buy coffee from ‘artisan’ shops it’s guaranteed to taste better. Smaller businesses that have strong relationships with their roasters, who in turn have strong relationships with their farmers, are selling drinks that have been tried and tested by passionate baristas. You’ll be drinking a coffee that you know has been crafted with care by people who strive to get the best flavours out of their beans as opposed to one mass produced for speed and quantity.
Next time you’re in Starbucks, take a look at the beans in the grinder and notice how greasy and sweaty they look… fancy having that oiliness in your drink? When beans are roasted to be ‘dark’, the natural oils are released. However, when the beans are over roasted, or burnt, the oils literally coat the bean. This oiliness then increases as the beans remain in their bags for too long. Sometimes you can see an oil slick on top of the drink. Not what you want first thing in the morning.
Where to get a good cup of coffee?
There’s a whole bunch of wonderful coffee shops around London serving tasty beverages. Over the next few months, I’m going to do features on individual cafes, photographing and talking to the people who run them. For now, here’s a list of some tried and tested favourites..
- Workshop Coffee.
- Café at Clerkenwell.
- Mortimer St Coffeebar.
- Holborn Viaduct Coffeebar.
- Marlybone Coffeebar.
- Great Titchfield Street.
- Restaurant, roastery and bar. Nearest tube is Kings Cross. Also worth noting that does the most incredible food in the restaurant to compliment your coffee.
- Tap Coffee.
- Wardour Street.
- Tottenham Court Road.
- Rathbone Place.
- Shoreditch Grind on Old Street roundabout.
- Soho Grind on Beak Street.
- Holborn Grind on High Holborn Street.
- Mother’s Milk.
- Little Portland Street.
Or if you’d like to order some beans for your home, check out these roasters. All the info is on their website, you can even call and chat about what flavours you’re looking for and they’ll post delicious coffee right to your doorstep..